Oman is one of the most isolated countries in Arabia. It is separated by mountains and one of the world’s most forbidding deserts from other parts of the peninsula. Oman did not enter the modern world until 1970 a few years after the country started drilling to exploit its petroleum reserves. That year the current Sultan with the support on the British lead a nearly bloodless coup against his isolationist father. Today Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said is a much admired leader. Despite the conflicts swirling around it, Oman is considered the most peaceful country in the Middle East. Ibahdi Islam is the dominant sect and is not involved in the conflict between Sunni and Shi’a.
Reason #1: If you are going to visit the Middle East…Oman is likely the most secure and inviting place to go. Though religiously conservative, it is less restrictive than many Islamic states.
The oil reserves of the Sultanate are expected to be gone soon, so Oman has made a concerted effort to invest in tourism and other industries.
The capital Muscat is the main port for the most fertile, mountainous area on the north coast of Oman. The rugged peaks of the Al Hajar hide verdant valleys and terraced slopes like those at Al Jabal Al Akhdar (Green Mountain) which produces Oman’s greatest variety of fruits and nuts. From the mountains flow intermittent streams and inside the narrow valleys are springs that create Wadis, oases of green, some of which have been developed as tourist destinations.
Reason #2: Oman is not just desert, it has significant areas that are green as well. So the natural sights of Oman vary significantly.
Hidden beneath the surface of north Oman’s rugged terrain are some of the world’s largest caves. The largest, Majlis Al Jinn, is not yet accessible to tourists, but near Green Mountain is Al Hoota Cave which offers tours and where thousands visit the large chambers on a rail system. Inside unique creatures live and stalactites and stalagmites ornament the walls, floors and ceilings. Oman expects cave tourism to become a major draw over the next decade as more caves are opened for public visits.
The northern coast has inviting beaches many of which are nestled between cliffs and rocky inclines. Those near Muscat are well-developed, but dotted along the coast are more isolated spots. Some areas offer top-notch scuba and snorkeling opportunities with walls, coral and shipwrecks. The flatter south, especially in Dhofar, has larger and longer beaches bordered by inland lagoons that feature flamingos and other wading birds. The easternmost point of Oman is a protected area known as Ras Al Jins where various sea-turtles nest. The number of visitors to this area is restricted so reservations are necessary.
Dhofar in the far south of Oman is famous for its regional monsoons which occur during summer months and create a blanket of green in what is otherwise a rugged desert. The most famous attraction in this green area is the massive Tawi Ateer Sinkhole or “Bird Well,’ discovered internationally only 15 years ago. Waterfalls, the birds and the Teeq Cave near the top of the 211 meter deep hole make this an exciting place to visit.
Reason #3: The geology of Oman is dramatic and the country is working hard to make that drama accessible to visitors.
The architecture of Oman is strongly influenced by fortress design. Oman was ruled by the Portuguese for just over two centuries. The colonialists added fortresses like those near the Royal Palace in Muscat, Al Jalali and Al Mirani and the one near Muscat’s port of Mutrah. The towers and crenelated walls of these structures are found in modern Omani buildings, such as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the elegant structure completed in 2001 and now the 3rd largest mosque in the world. Even the Royal Opera House Muscat (completed 2011) has something of the fortress in its design. Inland from Muscat are the popular Nakhal Fort, the Nazwa Fort in Oman’s most important inland city and the UNESCO World Heritage honored Bahla Fort. These impressive structures are well-preserved and popular with visitors.
Like the Romans, the Omanis developed a system of water delivery for their cultural and agricultural centers. The Aflaj system of aqueducts is unique to Oman and two falaj channels are on the UNESCO World Heritage list including Nazwa’s Dawoodi Falaj. Water, stored underground, derives from either rain or springs and is delivered to via a stone channels. The water is apportioned to locals through ownership or rental and is measured in time. Parts of the water system have been in place over 1500 years.
Historically, the coastal peoples of Oman have looked eastward and to the south where they established trading colonies centuries ago. The African island of Zanzibar was once part of the country of Oman and served as the most important trading center for East Africa with the outside world. Until the 1950’s the Sultanate had a trading colony in what is now Pakistan.
For centuries Frankincense, a gift fit for a king, was the core export from this region. This sap of a unique tree is only found in Oman, nearby Yemen and Somalia and is still used locally as an incense when entertaining guests. Though no longer an important export, its historic importance as a luxury item, makes Frankincense tours out of Salalah very popular.
Reason #4: Long hidden Omani history and culture is now of full display in a variety of settings from ancient forts to modern mosques and museums.